One busker on the streets of Nicosia has plied his trade around Europe for the last 27 years. THEO PANAYIDES catches up with him
I pass Patrick Byrne on a bitterly cold Wednesday night. He’s on Ledras Street in old Nicosia, cradling his guitar but not actually playing it – maybe because the street is all but deserted. We chat for a while; he’s easy to talk to. In 27 years I’ve never seen it this bad, he tells me, ‘it’ being the money situation. The guitar case draped on the pavement in front of him, seeking donations, is peppered with only a handful of small coins. I reach into my pocket, drop €2, and mention that I’d like to do a profile for the Sunday Mail. ‘Will you be here again tomorrow?’ I ask – but he looks away and strums his guitar, refusing to be tied down.
The next night, he’s nowhere to be found. I panic briefly; did I scare him away? – but in fact he’s merely moved up the street, looking for a more lucrative spot. He’s singing a blues-rock classic, ‘The Devil in Me’ by John Wesley Harding, in a croaky voice with a good deal of character. The day after that we sit in Kala Kathoumena, the conspicuously bohemian café just off Ledras, where he orders a Carlsberg and, to my surprise, greets a group of young musician types at a nearby table. It’s odd because he’s only been in Cyprus for a couple of weeks – but I guess musicians tend to stick together. Besides, like I said, he’s easy to talk to.
He’s actually told his story before, “a couple of times in France, a big one in Belgium”. Journalists love talking to buskers; the story writes itself – especially when they’ve been playing on the street since 1987, as Patrick has. 27 years, almost non-stop. “I had a few breaks to take a regular job,” he admits, “when you get so tired of it you can’t go on anymore. Well, not tired of it – I never get tired of it – but you get a bit… let’s say, demoralised”.
Sounds like right now is one of those times, I note.
“Sometimes it’s a struggle,” he shrugs and takes a drag of his cigarette. “Take Wednesday. I played for two hours and made 60 cents!”
That’s when I turned up and gave you €2, I remind him.
“Right. €2.60.” He shakes his head: “I know everyone’s hurting at the moment, but my god! You know, there are times when you only eat three times a week and that’s a bloody souvlaki or something. It really can be very rough. And you think ‘Jesus, what am I doing this for?’ – [but] what’s the alternative, you know? Go and be a slave?” He laughs: “I’m a runaway slave!”
He slaved for a while in his early 20s, working 18-hour days as a hotel waiter – though in fact further prodding reveals that he only did that part-time. He was also doing a Law degree at the LSE, though it’s not entirely clear if he graduated. So why didn’t he try something legal, or at least para-legal, instead of dropping out? “Well, you know, my girlfriend died of cancer and I just thought ‘What’s the point?’,” he replies briskly. “She was 23.” Patrick looks around, his body language restless; he’s not one to linger over anything, let alone an unpleasant memory. “Somebody said to me in Belgium in the summer, ‘You’re just going here and there, and playing on the streets and in bars – this is crazy’. Yeah. All right, maybe it is crazy – but working in an office for 40 years is pretty crazy as well!”
So where has he been, since 1987?
“Well, I was in France for about 10 years. Spent a year in Sweden. Good few years in Belgium. In and out of prison in Spain.” The Spanish police are notoriously tough on buskers, especially in the south, nor do Spanish passers-by tend to give much money; maybe it just isn’t in their culture. Patrick is an EU in miniature, alive to each nation’s quirks and foibles. “Portugal’s very nice. It’s so different between Portugal and Spain, they’re much more decent people in my opinion.”
He picks up the story of his timeline. “Good few winters in Greece.” Athens was great for busking, at least till the crisis hit and everything fell off a cliff. “Up and down Italy a few times. A bit in Germany – top to bottom, side to side. Berlin. That was just after the Wall came down, that was fun”. He followed a girlfriend to North Carolina, then played for two weeks in Chicago. He’s done day jobs here and there, “the cash-in-hand ones, mostly”. He can cook, cut hair, do a bit of plumbing; he’s done building work, though not for a while. “I’m too old to carry bags of cement up ladders now.”
He turned 49 last month – a mature age for a lifelong drop-out, but in fact he looks good. His nose is admittedly red (he’s never done drugs but he likes his beer, he says euphemistically), his short hair greying, his skin somewhat chapped – but he’s also clean-shaven, his fingernails cut very short and his blue eyes alert behind the rectangular glasses. His clothes look clean, not visibly patched or torn. He actually looks quite dapper, I remark, and he laughs out loud. “Some kid was giving me a lecture a few weeks ago. He had dreadlocks, and looked like he’d just fallen out of a dustbin. ‘You don’t know about the street, man.’ He’s about 19 or something.” Patrick shakes his head, and takes another drag of his cigarette. “You’ve got to laugh. Just smile at the guy, ‘OK mate, whatever’. I haven’t got dreadlocks and a combat jacket, so therefore I’m not really ‘street’, man!”
You do have to laugh at a teenager (especially in Cyprus) lecturing a man who’s been living semi-rough for 27 years – yet in fact there’s an interesting subtext to that story, because you can see how a rebellious youngster might feel slightly alienated by Patrick. He’s easy-going (“Do no harm, basically,” is how he defines his philosophy) but his energy isn’t relaxed, it’s jittery. He’s careful like a dad, not sloppy like a teenager. He may be slightly manipulative; more than once, I get the impression that he’s telling me exactly what I want to hear, the romantic narrative of life on the street vs. safe, ‘normal’ life. He’s not naïve, whether about the world or his own place in it.
Basically, Patrick Byrne has taken a youthful ideal and turned it into a career – a precarious, hand-to-mouth career, but a career all the same. He is, as he puts it, “old school”, part of a shifting community of musicians who do this for a living. “I saw a guy in Sweden I used to play with in France, saw a guy in Portugal I used to play with in Belgium. Pretty much everyone’s running around the same kind of circuit around Europe”. He pauses: “Well, a lot of them are dead now, the ones that were playing when I first started”.
“Misadventure,” he replies shortly. “Drug abuse. Accidental death. One fell in the river in Paris, drowned. Another one burned himself to death in a sleeping bag in Menton. A few drug overdoses here and there. That’s one thing to stay away from. If you want to be a drop-out, you’ve got to know how to look after yourself”. Drugs are a constant menace, says Patrick. He recalls watching Absolutely Fabulous, with its recreational attitude to drug abuse, and feeling unable to laugh along. Drugs “killed too many of my friends,” he explains.
It’s a lonely life as well, isn’t it?
He shrugs: “There’s a difference between solitary and lonely”. Besides, he’s forever hooking up with people – just travelling together for a while, then parting ways. “See you on the road somewhere,” they tell each other – “and often you do. Or you hear five years later they’re dead somewhere, face-down in a toilet in Turkey or something”. At the moment, he’s travelling with Gary, a fellow Brit whom he met in Poitiers a few months ago. Gary’s big, built like a bouncer, which helps in warding off drunks; he’s “a mechanic of some description,” says Patrick vaguely when I ask about Gary’s profession. Clearly, personal questions aren’t especially encouraged on the road.
Instead, you have stories – a lifetime of stories to be lived, shared and recalled ad infinitum. The one about the Irish pub in Nice with the world’s most obnoxious landlord (“No Irish songs!” he warned, then kicked Patrick out for playing ‘Whisky in the Jar’). The one about the punk rockers in Coimbra, Portugal who all had “one-word nicknames like ‘Spud’, ‘Dog’ and things like this” – but kindly allowed Patrick to stay in their squat, in exchange for using his guitar, while he recovered from breaking both arms in an accident. The one about the hooker with a heart of gold in Poitiers who gave him €200 (a substantial portion of her night’s earnings) when he was in dire straits. The one about a guy in France called Mad Steve (“we don’t call him Mad Steve to his face”), who is indeed quite mad. “I’ve seen him crack up a few times,” recalls Patrick, then mimes psychotic rage: “‘You bastards, shut up!’ ‘All right Steve, take it easy…’ ‘And you as well, shut up!’ He’s passing the hat around on the terrace: ‘Right, you bastards, give me your money!’.”
Even now, in Cyprus, he’s minting new stories. “Did you see that South African girl yesterday, with the fingernails?” he asks with a chuckle. “She had fingernails that were 20cm long, at least! Like claws, they were!”. I assume she’ll be recalled, months from now, in some pub in Italy or Belgium – though in fact Cyprus as a whole has been difficult for Patrick. He and Gary are now living in a cheap hotel in north Nicosia, crossing over to try and make rent money, having previously tried Limassol and found it impossible.
Really? What about all those tourists?
He hesitates: “Let’s be charitable and say that it’s old expatriate English in their golden years.”
Don’t such people give money to buskers?
“Of course they don’t. People walking around with socks and sandals and walking sticks look down on people like me.”
Not even out of British solidarity? He was, after all, born in Ealing, albeit to Irish-immigrant parents.
“No, not at all. I’m just a scallywag,” he says, giving the word an amused spin. “A chancer. You know the old joke: ‘What do you call a busker without a girlfriend? Homeless!’.”
That said, Britain looms in the distance as (at least) a possibility. Patrick is too proud to say so – but nor does he deny it when I observe that difficult years may be coming up. It’s tough being middle-aged on the street. People may be less inclined to help a 50-something as they would a youngster, and of course it’s harder to stay healthy. He’s already been sick once, a neurological illness called Guillain-Barré syndrome that kept him in hospital for half a year –though he claims it was unconnected to his rough-and-ready lifestyle.
It would certainly be easier in Britain. He has family there, and never lost touch (what do they think of his lifestyle? “None too impressed, to be honest with you”). And of course he could go on the dole, though he frowns at the thought.
“I don’t write a big ‘A’ on the wall and say ‘I’m an anarchist!’,” explains Patrick Byrne with a hint of derision – thinking, perhaps, of folks like that dreadlocked 19-year-old – “but I am, kind of, a bit of an anarchist in my soul. And I couldn’t really be a bit of an anarchist or drop-out, whatever you want to call it, and then go and sign on the dole, could I? It’s a bit hypocritical. I’d rather make my own way.”
He’s always done that, if nothing else. Some might call him a failure, a man who’s pushing 50 and still doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from, but he’s always gone his own way. He allows me to pay for his beer, then hurries back to Ledras; it’s time to go to work. His voice isn’t too bad, he admits coyly – then smiles, with the air of an oft-told joke: “At least it keeps me off the streets”.